After directing some 65 industrial films and short documentaries for the Calvin Company, Robert Altman got his first real break from Elmer Rhoden Jr., a film exhibitor who wanted to break into producing them. In 1956, he hired Altman to make a juvenile-delinquency picture which he figured could make him some fast money. Altman wrote The Delinquents in five days, then scouted it, produced it, and filmed it in a matter of weeks. It cost about $63,000 to make and was shot in Altman’s home town of Kansas City.
It looks, feels, and acts like an After-school Special written by your third-grade Sunday-school teacher. It is, in a word, not very good. Were it not for being Altman’s directorial debut, and the first film to star Tom Laughlin it would have been forgotten years ago. It certainly wouldn’t be getting a new Blu-ray transfer by Oliver Films.
A pre-Billy Jack Laughlin stars as Scotty White, an 18-year-old dating the 16-year-old Janice (Rosemary Howard). When her parents break the pair up for fear they are getting too serious while being too young, Scotty does what every 18-year-old does with a broken heart - he joins up with a local gang of delinquents. They drink and smoke and go necking with girls. When Scotty uses one of the delinquents as a decoy to see Janice one night, the whole gang breaks into an old house and throw a party. That’s when all hell (or as close to hell as this sort of picture can get) breaks loose.
The cops break up the party, but because Scotty and Janice had left moments earlie,r the gang figures they were the ones that ratted them out. They get Scotty drunk, rob a liquor store, and when that goes wrong, they kidnap Janice to ensure Scotty doesn’t rat on them again.
It is as bad a film as that sounds, but at 72 minutes its at least mercifully short. Bookended by Dragnet-esque narration that lectures the audience about how to righteously discipline teens to rid the country of teenage delinquency, it never strays from its morality-tale roots. It doesn’t have quite the ridiculousness of other '50s delinquency flicks to give it camp appeal.
You can see the beginnings of some of Altman’s style. The party scene in particular has that relaxed improvised feel he is famous for. Apparently he shot it in a large mansion, telling the kids to act like it's the craziest party they can imagine and then just let his camera wander about. It gets about as wild as you might expect from a bunch of middle-class white kids in the '50s being told to party hearty.
As a film, The Delinquents is completely forgettable. Only recommended for Robert Altman die-hard looking to see how his trademark style developed over the years.